This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on February 8.
You think you’re a person of good will and fair minded. You are a strong and aggressive advocate for Israel against its many and varied enemies, malicious or misguided, but you are not single-minded: you support two states for two peoples – Jews and Palestinians – both with ancient historic claims to their presence on the land, and have always opposed the settlement project. Even more, however, you have committed yourself to opposing, wherever it reveals itself, the vile and unyielding hatred and rejection of Jews that disfigures Arab societies and humanity. Still you wish always to be fair and intellectually honest: this six decades long dance of aggression and defense, of control and resistance has been unavoidably a test of everyone’s empathy. Even those on your side – those of whom you are one, the Jews, those whom you support and whose greater justice and openness to resolution of the conflict is recorded on every page of the historical record – even they, for they are human, will err, will convince themselves of a falsehood, will stand defensively resistant to the evidence that disproves some dearly held conviction.
When, then, you read of a scholarly study – “Victims of our own Narratives?” it is called – the results of which appear to disprove just such a crucial conviction, that Palestinian educational materials incite hatred of Jews, you brace yourself. You have seen the videos of very young Palestinian children inculcated through song and pageantry in the murderous glorification of suicidal “martyrdom.” You have seen the parades and dedication ceremonies with the speeches in honor of people who fought no armies, but have blown up, instead, buses with civilians and children on them. (If torture of Al-Qaeda leaders was a stain on American moral distinction, what corruption of the soul is it to stand in celebration of the dismembered bodies in pizza parlors?) You could go on and on.
Still, you tell yourself, you could be deluded – the victim of a comforting, but false narrative – about the totality of this demonization. Who can ever be immune? How many stories of the past, repeated in chorus after chorus, become a substitute for actual memory? Prepare yourself, you say. Be honest. Judge the evidence as it reveals itself. The truth is great and complex. It needs no lies to champion its ascendance.
You read of the study’s supervisor, Bruce Wexler, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Yale. You read of the balance of nationalities of those who work on the study, and of the advisory board of distinguished figures. There is the balance, too, and the distinction, of the lead researchers, Palestinian scholar Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, and Israeli Daniel Bar-Tal from Tel Aviv University. The study was commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and even financially underwritten by the U.S. State Department. It all shapes an impressive imprimatur.
“Academic Study Weakens Israeli Claim That Palestinian School Texts Teach Hate,” headlines The New York Times.
“Textbook Study Debunks Myth of Palestinian Incitement,” asserts Al-Monitor, the sexy new voice of Middle East reportage.
“Textbooks show both sides to blame for enmity,” reports The Jerusalem Post.
“Textbook study faults Israelis and Palestinians,” the Associated Press informs with balance.
Both Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks largely present one-sided narratives of the conflict between the two peoples and tend to ignore the existence of the other side, but rarely resort to demonization, a U.S. State Department-funded study released Monday said.
Even, already, the story – to speak of narratives – is told on Wikipedia.
A comprehensive three year study (2009-2012), regarded by its researchers as ‘ the most definitive and balanced study to date on the topic,’ found that incitement, demonization or negative depictions of the other in children’s education was “extremely rare” in both Israeli and Palestinian school texts, with only 6 instances discovered in over 9,964 pages of Palestinian textbooks, none of which consisted of “general dehumanising characterisations of personal traits of Jews or Israelis”.
Oh, dear, you think.
Be a man, you tell yourself.
You continue to read, whatever you can. Maybe you seek an escape hatch. Let us be honest about that. Because we are all being honest in all we do here, are we not? But you also know that in this matter – in all matters, of course, but especially in this matter of Israel and of Jews – it is wise always to read a little more, learn a little more, know something more. You learn that Israel’s Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar has rejected the study out of hand. That is troubling. Such a reputable academic study, simply dismissed. This will look bad, and rightly so.
And then you read of Bruce Wexler’s response to the rejection.
“That man cannot see beyond the blinders that have come into his mind by developing as a product of a national narrative that can’t understand the types of things we’re talking about here, and by the way, national leaders who have those blind spots, like he does, make for poor and dangerous national leaders.”
You pause. You think, something is not right about that comment, its tone and its condemnation. Where is the scholarly temperament? Where is the neutrality? Surely, Wexler, a professor of psychiatry who is seeking accurate descriptions of reality, whatever they may be, committed to the tale told by the evidence and not invested in the climax – surely he would understand that an outcome upending the firm beliefs of only one party under study would be disturbing. He would anticipate that. And his role, his neutral and scholarly role, would be, surely, to defend and advocate for the integrity of his study, in the long term interest of advancing knowledge, but not to attack those under study for failing to acquiesce in the study’s conclusion. How often do researchers treat the subjects of their study with contempt?
Something not right.
And you wonder about “blinders that have come into his mind by developing as a product of a national narrative that can’t understand the types of things we’re talking about here.” You wonder, is that a response merely to Sa’ar’s dismissal of the study? Because it does seems to reveal an already existing perspective.
Let’s read some more, you tell yourself. Let’s see if this leads anywhere.
You begin to read from varied sources widely varying reports on the number of textbooks studied, from “3,000 texts, illustrations and maps,” in the notoriously biased Guardian, by the notoriously biased Harriet Sherwood, to various reports of four hundred plus Israeli textbooks to only one hundred plus Palestinian. The account apparently most familiar with the contents of the study puts the number at 74 Israeli books and 94 Palestinian. Already we see wildly imprecise or misreporting. Perhaps there were various levels of more focused scrutiny? By what process of selection?
ABC News reports,
The study analyzed 74 Israeli and 94 Palestinian books, covering grades 1-12 and teaching social sciences, geography, literature, religion, Arabic and Hebrew. The Israeli books were from state-run secular and religious schools, as well as independent ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. The vast majority of the Palestinian books were used in government schools, and only six in private Islamic schools.
All accounts tell us the same: that the Israeli textbooks were selected both from public schools and “ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools,” presumably with the expectation, reportedly borne out, that a higher level of religio-ethnocentric characterization would appear in the Orthodox books. ABC notes above that only six textbooks were from private Islamic schools and no account you read even addresses whether any textbooks were drawn from Hamas controlled Gaza. If it seemed important to select – and announce the selection – textbooks from ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, anticipating some extremity of representation, or at least thinking it a distinct segment of society requiring discrete inclusion, then why would there not be the same call with Hamas? You read in the Guardian, too, that Israel’s Arabic texts for Israeli Arab schools were not included in the study. You think to yourself that somehow – really having no idea how – such an inclusion might be very instructive. You think you are detecting a number of questionable omissions.
Then you read that the study, its authors claim,
employs a new methodology to produce a transparent, simultaneous, comprehensive and scientifically rigorous analysis.
Central to this methodology was to identify and count “negative” portrayals of “the other.” You think that there is a fair degree of subjective and not “scientifically rigorous” evaluation involved in consideration of what constitutes “negative,” but you go on. When you go on, you discover, for instance, that statements of fact such as, teaching about Iraqi pogroms,
[o]n the holiday of Shavuot, Arabs attacked Jews and murdered them, including women and children
are evaluated as negative. As is
[t]error struck again and again, and reached a climax in the period after the war with the murders of 13 students and teachers from Moshav Avivim on their way to school (May 1970) and 11 athletes at the Munich Olympics (September 1972).
Just as is the judgmental (and factually incorrect)
Zionism is “a colonialist political movement founded by the Jews of Europe in the second half of the 19th century… [intent on] displacing the Palestinian people in Palestine from their land.”
Or would be “Jews are the descendants of pigs and apes.”
You begin to realize that this new “transparent” and “comprehensive” methodology is actually not very new and now very common. Though, yes, it is transparent. As can frequently be found in a similar misconception of objective reporting, this methodology counts only occurrences and claims, but does not interpret their meanings or assess their truth. Simply, Mr. Churchill claims and Mr. Hitler denies the claim. Were such an objective and “scientifically rigorous” approach taken to the analysis of current or historical events, both Mein Kampf and all of Winston Churchill’s various speeches over the course of the 1930’s warning of the dangerous militaristic rise of Germany would simply be counted, with no further assessment, as “negative” depictions of “the other.”
Of course, the details of the study are many and much greater, but confidence in its quality is crumbling. But how can this be, from such highly qualified people? So you seek to educate yourself about the figures behind the study.
Bruce Wexler, you discover, is the founder of A Different Future, an NGO committed (as are we all?) to seeking peace in the Middle East. Fundamental to its vision is the equalizing belief that
Extremist minorities perpetuate the conflict in pursuit of their own agendas.… Acts of cooperation that humanize the “other” and build trust get little exposure while extremist groups receive free media coverage worth millions of dollars. [Emphasis in the original]
Wexler has written Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change. According to MIT Press,
In Brain and Culture, Bruce Wexler explores the social implications of the close and changing neurobiological relationship between the individual and the environment, with particular attention to the difficulties individuals face in adulthood when the environment changes beyond their ability to maintain the fit between existing internal structure and external reality. These difficulties are evident in …the meeting of different cultures…and the phenomenon of interethnic violence.
You begin to understand better now Wexler’s response to Sa’ar. If one is party to conflict, if one believes in one’s position in the conflict and rejects attempts to make disappear through “scientific” study the human reality you live in that conflict, then you are ipso facto determined not by your critical analysis of your circumstances, but by neurobiological disability “to maintain the fit between existing internal structure and external reality.” You protest, the psychiatrist tells you, too much.
What about those co-leaders of the study, you wonder, Adwan and Bar-Tal? Like Wexler, they are academics of impressive certification and residence. What you discover, though, is that Adwan is co-directors of PRIME – the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East – the prime project of which is the “Dual-Narrative History Project” the proposal of which is “’Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative’ in Israeli and Palestinian Schools.”
Adwan and the late Dan Bar-On, an Israeli who was co-director of PRIME and who was strikingly unsympathetic to the Israeli view of the conflict, co-authored a book, Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine.
Adwan’s co-director of the textbook study, Bar-Tal, is author of book reminiscent of Wexler’s:Intractable Conflicts: Socio-Psychological Foundations and Dynamics.
A commonality begins to come into view: researchers in the field of peace and conflict resolution studies who conceive of conflict as misunderstanding that has been locked into neurobiological and socio-psychological dynamics. It is the project, you begin to see clearly, of Wexler’s work and of Adwan’s and Bar-Tal’s to erase distinction and difference, to establish parity between Israeli and Palestinian narratives, so that neither can claim the high ground of greater truth. Working from the belief that conflict is the product of misunderstanding, the researchers reduce the historical record and the current ideas of antagonists to hardened circuitry and narratives mistaken for reality. Everyone is the same in misunderstanding, and if we can let go of all the pain and the grievance (here – here’s a tissue – have a good cry), then all that stands between Israelis and Palestinians is the land.
You understand now that Wexler, Adwan, and Bar-Tal have their own narrative of the world, and of the world of Israel-Palestine, and not very remarkably they have written that narrative into their study.
But it is worse.
You realize this is all a dead end. You realize it is an intellectual boondoggle, a scientific research Goldstone Report. The researchers, biased to begin, not just against Israel’s position in the conflict, but against the conceptual ground of Israel’s position – that conflict can be the product of intention, and not simply of misunderstanding – produced results through highly questionable and even absurd procedures that confirmed what they already believe and that shape a lens through which they already see the conflict. Yet as always, such an account is self-contradictory
The researchers’ motivating conception is that conflict, rather than intentional and contentious, is the product of parallel and dueling narratives that cannot read each other. The conclusion of the textbook study – which based on all you have now learned about the intellectual drives of the researchers, is believed, if not even intended, to apply not just to education, but all Israeli claims of Palestinian incitement – is that Israeli claims about Palestinian educational practice constitute a false narrative that Israelis have become habituated to read and recite. Israeli claims of an objective record of rejection and offense are a chimera. But when Bruce Wexler feels antagonized by Gideon Sa’ar’s rejection of Wexler’s study, that is no chimera or false narrative, no hardening of the neurobiological circuitry, but an actual offense that Wexler will objectify as the “blinders” in Sa’ar’s mind, blinders that make Sa’ar, in Wexler’s doubtless judgment “dangerous.” But Israelis have no ground upon which to call Palestinians a danger to them. That is just a story.
Another story, related by Palestinian advocates, is that the power imbalance between the two parties obviates the normal expectation of equality of action and reaction between them. This is even the rationale of so many for the obsessive concentration on Israel and what it does and does not do to advance the cause of peace, with little consideration of Palestinian behavior. Israel’s greater power, according to this argument, its military might and control, is already a kind of precondition to negotiation and resolution that Palestinians must meet, so the Palestinian side, excused in its passivity, is entitled as well to demand some other, more common and particular, equalizing precondition, such as a halt to settlement construction. Viewed through this lens, Palestinian preconditions are not one-sided and unequal demands at all, but equalizers of human and political dynamics.
However, there is a different lens through which to view what is actually a contrary truth. For while in this peace-promoting vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict what the two sides want is the same – self-determination for their people in lands of their own – what they have to barter with in the negotiation of their futures is far from the same. What the Israelis have, that the Palestinians want and bargain for, is land and control over it. What the Palestinians have and Israel bargains not to gain, but eliminate, is hatred, rejection, and violence without limits. But the concrete concession of land and authority, once given, are not easily regained, not without great cost, while the surcease of hatred is an achievement poorly measured, and rejection and the violence easily resumed.
Israelis can see Gaza from where they live, you think. Can Bruce Wexler?
In this Palestinian power of negation – a six decade commitment to privation, and to withholding from Israel, at whatever cost, fulfillment of Israel’s dream of an end to enmity, of the accomplishment of normalcy and the elimination of the existential question – it is, through a different window on the world, Palestinians, actually, who hold the power: “The Al-Qassam Brigades love death more than you love life.”
You conclude that this latest “peace and justice charade” is part of the ever expanding campaign to delegitimize not just Israel today, but the ancient and modern history of Israel, and the truth of the unprecedented enmity against Israel, and of the six decades of conflict forced upon it. It is the “scientific” arm of a widening campaign. The campaign seeks to test, through also political and international organization, linguistic and conceptual manipulation, reimagination of old caricature and stereotype, legal warfare, groupthink and more whether through sheer force of ideological will, reality can be inverted, the history of a people and a nation perverted, and the day be made the night.
It is not, you think, as if it has not been done before.